Pacific Southwest RegionCalifornia, Nevada and Klamath Basin
'We got #20'
Condor biologist Joseph Brandt nets condor #20 and prepares to bring him outside the flight pen for his health check. Biologists will take a blood sample and weight. Since 2008, more California condors have flown free in the wild than are held in captivity. Condors now soar across much of their recent historic range from Monterey and San Benito counties south through Ventura County and north into the southwestern Sierra Nevada. They fly in Arizona, Utah and Mexico’s Baja California. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS
Generations of biologists and volunteers track one of the last wild condors
By Meagan Racey
December 12, 2018
“We got 20,” said biologist Nicole Weprin, nodding toward the 30-foot-tall pen of flapping, black-and-white wings.
Not 20 birds. And not just any bird. A single, storied male California condor called #20 – labeled by a fluorescent orange and black tag affixed to his wing and tracked by several generations of conservationists for his pivotal role in saving North America’s largest bird species.
But to many, #20 is known as adult condor "AC-4," the name given in 1985 when he was captured by biologists as part of a last-ditch effort to halt the extinction of the California condor.
The 30-foot-tall flight pen at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge is used both for preparing captive California condors to be released into the wild and for periodically trapping wild condors for health check-ups. The storied male condor #20 was in the pen this day. He was one of the last condors in the wild in the 1980s. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS
Condor #20 was one of 22 wild California condors left on Earth. Between 1983 and 1987, biologists moved #20 and his fellow survivors to captivity in the San Diego Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. They aimed to forge a breeding program that would eventually return condors to the skies of the Southwest.
And that they have. The population now numbers nearly 500. Condor #20 sired 30 of those condors and mentored dozens of other captive-born condors before their release.
After three decades, he, too, was returned to the wild in 2015.
Service biologists Joseph Brandt and Eddie Owens along with recovery program volunteer Bill Langford spread the tail feathers on AC-4 to for an ID photo before it was released at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in this December 2015, photo. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS
Condor #20’s restored reign of the thermals was briefly interrupted November 14. Using carcasses, biologists lured the scavenger and other condors into the flight pen at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Kern County, California. From here, little to no sign of man can be seen. The grasslands roll down into the canyons, and the autumnal foothills fold and drop like a deer hide draped over points of rock.
The condors like to be above it all.
But that day, condor #20 perched on branches in the pen along with 13 other wild condors that would receive regular health checks by biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Santa Barbara Zoo and the Great Basin Institute.
“We’re handling the birds today because every condor in the wild is marked and monitored,” said lead condor biologist Joseph Brandt with the Service. Brandt, who’s worked in the California Condor Recovery Program for over a decade, netted #20 with ease and carried him out of the pen to the processing area.
Adult condors, like #20 shown here, have a mostly bald head and neck. The skin of the head and neck is colored in shades of pink, red, orange, yellow, and light blue; becoming more intensely pink/orange during times of excitement and in the breeding season. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS
Holding the bird, Brandt explained, “The business end of the condor is the beak… condors have big, powerful beaks, so we have to respect that.”
Condor #20’s curved beak, the color of ivory and sharp enough to pierce a horse hide, was held by the institute’s AmeriCorps intern Andy Parks. His warm, scaly gray legs were pulled taut by zoo nest technician Laura Echavez.
While biologists attached a new wing tag and transmitter to track 20, they also weighed the condor and took a blood sample to monitor for lead poisoning – the primary killer of condors. When lead ammunition fractures inside the target animal, the fragments of the lead bullet can spread throughout the tissue of the animal that has been shot.
As scavengers, condors unknowingly eat these small fragments and absorb the lead into their systems. Copper bullets, an effective lead alternative, are growing in popularity with the hunting community and minimize collateral wildlife damage.
Condor #20 had no signs of recent poisoning. He blinked his deep red eyes and watched the biologists. Slyly, he slid his nearly featherless neck – the colors of peach and mango sherbet – up through Parks’ hand in an effort to break free.
Biologist Nicole Weprin counts feathers from condor #20 before weighing him. After the check up, she carried him to the gentle sloping hill beside the pen, knelt, placed his feet on the ground and let go. Condor #20 returned home. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS
Perhaps the skies called him back. But the experienced biologists weren’t fooled. Nor did they blame him.
He’s just a “grumpy old bird that reminds me of myself,” remarked Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex project leader David Ledig with a smile. Ledig started with the Service in the condor program back in 1981.
“(Condor) #20 was a wild bird I monitored in the ‘80s,” he said. That was when they observed the last condors in the wild and tested techniques with captive rearing. Back then, they captured many of the birds by firing 50-by-50 foot nets above them using cannons.
Biologists collect a blood sample from the condor’s leg to test for lead poisoning – the primary killer of condors. When lead ammunition fractures inside an animal, the lead permeates the wound, spreading spreading beyond the initial wound location. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS
Ledig worked with zoologist Peter Bloom, who took part in both the bird’s 1985 capture and 2015 release. Bloom had “personally folded its wings,” and called watching the bird set free “the highest reward.”
Condor #20 had special meaning for several other members of the crew.
At 38, “he’s just a couple years younger than I am,” noted Brandt, who started his condor work as an intern at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in 2005. Programs through the institute, zoos, Audubon, school districts and other partners prime the condor stewards of tomorrow.
“It’s a big family of folks all dedicated to the same thing,” Brandt said.
The Los Angeles Conservation Corps joined the health check crew, volunteering to hold the birds while biologists did their work. Jonathan Medina held the body and head of one condor, calling it a “nerve-wracking, but great experience.”
Since 2008, more California condors have flown free in the wild than are held in captivity. Condors now soar across much of their recent historic range from Monterey and San Benito counties south through Ventura County and north into the southwestern Sierra Nevada. They fly in Arizona, Utah and Mexico’s Baja California.
“Considering we had a species that was down to only 23 individuals in the world [including one in captivity], and now the world population is coming close to 500 individuals, that’s a lot of progress,” Brandt said. “While recovery is going to take a good amount of work, it is possible.”
Condors are highly intelligent, social birds. These condors await the release of their fellow birds, which are below them in the flight pen at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge awaiting health check-ups by biologists. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS
The condor recovery story has been the subject of documentaries and exhibits across the country.
“It’s strange to think that some of those condors are the same ones that I watched on that PBS special as a kid 25 years ago,” said National Wildlife Refuge Association partnership specialist Angie Horn, who has worked in urban conservation for over a decade. “That’s what got me into conservation.”
For a Great Basin Institute AmeriCorps intern just starting her career, the condors are an inspiration.
“When I was about like 7 or 8, I went to the San Diego Zoo, and I saw California condors and thought they were amazing,” said Katie Fitzgerald, who will be working with condors for her internship. It was at the San Diego Zoo that condor #20 and his mate condor #13 (UN-1) reared the first captive-born California condor chick three decades ago.
Condor #20, formerly known as AC-4, is shown here after being captured on August 7, 1985. Biologists moved #20 and his fellow survivors to captivity in the San Diego Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Credit: USFWS
It was proof that the endangered bird would breed in captivity.
This year, condor #20 proved he could still breed in the wild, too. He sired his first chick since the 2015 release. In late October, the new chick “successfully fledged and is flying around the Santa Barbara backcountry,” said California condor nest biologist Erin Arnold, who works with the zoo.
As condor #20 tolerated the remainder of his November health check, his new mate, 6-year-old condor #654, appeared. She circled under the blue skies, as though awaiting his return. Service biologist Nicole Weprin weighed condor #20 and then carried him to the gentle sloping hill beside the pen. She knelt, placed his feet on the ground and let go.
After a brief jaunt, he was off, rising above the smiling onlookers. A legacy still in the making. A thread to those that flew thousands, and even millions, of years before him.
Great Basin Institute AmeriCorps intern Katie Fitzgerald holds a California condor while biologist Joseph Brandt begins to do the health check. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS
Biological science technician Maria Barton shows how biologists track #20 and his fellow condors using transmitters and radio telemetry. They glue the transmitters under the condor’s feathers. Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS
PARTING SHOT: A young California condor after his health check and release at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. “Considering we had a species that was down to only 23 individuals in the world [including one in captivity], and now the world population is coming close to 500 individuals, that’s a lot of progress,” said Joseph Brandt. “While recovery is going to take a good amount of work, it is possible.” Credit: Rebecca Fabbri/USFWS
About the writer...
Meagan Racey serves as a public affairs specialist for external affairs in the Northeast Region headquarters in Hadley, Massachusetts.
Meagan enjoys everything outdoors and recently served on a month-long detail assignment in California at the Pacific Southwest Region's Office of External Affairs, where she assisted with current public affairs issues and wrote numerous articles for our website, such as the one above.
While she spends many of her waking hours under fluorescent lighting, she restores her conservation spirit with as much time exploring the outdoors as she can get. She’s a true believer in the power of storytelling to connect people with our agency and mission.